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The Next Steps
Despite repeated requests, neither Marv Patten, ISDA's dairy bureau chief nor ISDA Director Celia Gould agreed be interviewed for this story.
The agency did agree however to take some written questions, which were answered by Pam Juker, ISDA chief of staff, and ISDA Deputy Director Brian Oakey.
Both said that the Jan. 4 meeting was not an official ISDA event, despite the fact that it was held at the agency's headquarters, with Patten helming the session. They said ISDA did not record the meeting and no minutes were taken.
But Oakey insisted that the decision was not part of a subversive effort or a cover up.
"We wanted to be proactive to get information out to producers and the industry," Oakey said.
Indeed, Idaho's dairy industry was well represented at the meeting, with more than 50 attendees representing dairy owners, milk processors and veterinarians. In the room were representatives from the Northwest Dairy Association and the Idaho Milk Producers Association. A representative from Jerome Cheese joined on the phone from its Magic Valley headquarters, where every day they turn millions of pounds of milk into 500,000 pounds of cheese.
Information distributed to the attendees included diagrams and instructions of test kits designed to detect antibiotics in animal tissues. Dairymen were also given guidelines for milk screening tests, detailing acceptable and unacceptable sensitivity levels of each drug that would be tested by the FDA. In addition, attendees were given an article from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, spelling out the consequence of the use of prohibited drugs in food animals.
"In the instance of repeated or flagrant abuse of the laws, an injunction is placed against the producer until such time as all animals on the premises can be shown to be free of residues," stated the JAVMA. "If the animals are not free of residues within 60 days, the injunction may become permanent. In extreme cases, responsible persons may be fined or imprisoned."
At the meeting, dairy industry representatives crafted a plan to conduct unofficial testing. And while the tests were done at the ISDA Animal Health Laboratory, agency officials said they did not propose the testing and added that they did not see the results, nor did the ISDA keep any copies or records of the results. Oakey added that because the testing was not state-ordered, the results will not affect any current dairy programs.
"The results of the milk tests are the property of and in the possession of the Idaho Dairymen's Association," said Juker. "If you want to know what the results were you're going to need to talk to them."
The Dairymen's Association, founded in 1944, promotes the Gem State's $1.8 billion industry and is funded through dairy producer assessments. Juker said the Dairymen's Association recommended the milk sample testing protocol, but there was no official record of what that protocol entailed.
Sen. Tim Corder, a veteran of farming and politics, said ISDA and Idaho dairymen should be credited with not being complacent on the issue.
"If I was in the industry, I'd want to know about the problem so I could fix it," said Corder. "If it was fixed, I don't know if I'd want that to be public knowledge. If you solve the problem, that's the goal. But if you can't solve the problem, make it public, absolutely."
Corder was quick to add that a continual violator shouldn't be cut any slack.
"A repeat offender? That's a problem," said Corder. "They don't get a pass. Not from the department. Not from the industry."
Sen. Les Bock agreed with his Ag committee colleague.
"Idaho's dairy industry has been trying to clean up its act, and we want to believe that," said Bock. "But if it begins to look like they're not, it's going to hurt their credibility with the committee."
Bock stared at the FSIS violation report.
"I don't buy anything other than organic anyway," said Bock, pointing at the list. "This is why."
Though the FDA announced plans for testing of Idaho dairies, those tests have yet to start.
"Nothing's been finalized," said Stephanie Yao, FDA spokesperson. "The milk sampling has not begun. We want to seek further input on approaches that will help us address, to the extent possible, the concerns that have been raised."
When the FDA begins showing up at hundreds of American farms, including in Idaho, Yao said they'll be looking for well-managed dairies.
"A well-managed dairy farm maintains records of each animal treated, what it was treated with, when it was treated and how it was treated," said Yao. "Such records are used by producers so that they can ensure that treated cows put back into the milking string or sold for slaughter have met appropriate drug withdrawal times in order to prevent illegal drug residues in meat and milk."
But Yao confirmed that sometimes, inspectors discover problems.
"Yes, the FDA is concerned that the same poor management practices which led to the meat residues may also result in drug residues in milk," said Yao.
Oakey said his agency is waiting for the FDA's next move.
"It's in their court. I can't speculate on what going to happen," he said.
Corder said he was convinced that there were numerous behind-closed-door conversations concerning the issue.
"The last thing any Idaho dairyman wants is for someone to read a story in your paper that builds suspicion of people where they don't buy any more milk or cheese. That's the very last thing a dairyman wants."
Corder said he looked forward to more transparency on the issue in the near future.
"I suspect that the Dairymen's Association are trying to plot a course, not around the issue but through the issue," said Corder.
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